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Boris Johnson: What is the PM’s relationship with the truth?

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Laura Kuenssberg


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2 May

The truth matters, doesn’t it?


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In what’s meant to be a grown-up Western democracy surely we’d all like to think so. It doesn’t pay to be naïve. Politicians, even really honest ones, regularly say things they don’t quite believe.

The public knows this. We don’t expect our politicians to be angels. But outright lying, in my experience, is relatively rare. It is too easily found out.


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Only one senior politician still in the game has ever privately told me something that was utterly, entirely, and completely untrue. It was proved publicly to be a lie a few days later.

It’s also rare for opposition parties to accuse a prime minister, on the record, of lying.


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Which brings us to Boris Johnson.

The prime minister’s relationship with the truth is under intense scrutiny at the moment. He is refusing to give full explanations on some issues. There are questions about how the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat was initially funded, and about incendiary comments he made last autumn as England was about to enter a second lockdown.

Downing Street is repeatedly denying that he has done anything wrong.

It is not the first time in Boris Johnson’s long career that he has faced questions about his conduct and character. But the stakes are so much higher now. His unique way of running things – and sometimes chaotic approach to decision-making – has, sources tell me, led exasperated colleagues in No 10 to nickname him “Trolley”.

Quote card: "The PM treats facts like he treats all his relationships - utterly disposable once inconvenient" - former minister

“You think you are pushing it along a path towards your goal then suddenly it veers off disastrously,” says one insider.

If anyone wanted to submit accurate Freedom of Information requests on government WhatsApp messages, “you’d have to include the trolley emoji”, adds my source. No 10 declined to comment on the name.

It was Mr Johnson himself who may have coined the analogy, telling friends he was “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley,” over whether to back Leave or Remain, ahead of the Brexit referendum, according to the Sunday Times. He famously wrote two versions of his newspaper column, one backing Leave, the other Remain, arguing through all the options to be completely sure.

Some of his allies cite this desire to argue things backwards and forwards before reaching a decision as a strength, saying: “He challenges organisations and conventional wisdom.”

Others have a more straightforward explanation.

“He is just sometimes unable to face the truth because he doesn’t like making hard decisions,” says one insider. Another says: “You are never sure what the real truth of a situation is.” Others say it is hard to get clarity and a sense of purpose, or that it is “hard to work out where his motives begin and end”.

So what does this tell us about the prime minister’s relationship with the truth?

First, the benign interpretation of how the PM operates. One insider who knows him well says it is simply “unfair and easy to cry ‘liar’, as the opposition has done”.

“He’s far more complex and strategic and people don’t give him credit for how calculating and clever he is.”

Another source told me Mr Johnson has a “genuinely selective memory” and that “‘I choose to remember certain things or not remember others'” is his default way of dealing with the pressures of life at No 10.

For years, it’s been the case that when things get sticky, particularly with Boris Johnson’s personal life or financial affairs, he refuses to engage in those conversations at all, even in private with his close aides. The message to staffers is, effectively: “Don’t ask, because I won’t tell.”

One source told me that is why, right now, life in No 10 is bound to be tense and difficult.

“Part of the problem is that these two things, his personal relationships and his financial situation are colliding. He’ll be finding it very difficult, and people trying to advise him will also find that hard.”

But is he not telling the truth?

This particular source believes that the PM may try to evade questions about matters of the home and heart, but not on political issues.

“To a degree every politician has to go out and say things they don’t always agree with. He is a professional and he does that.”

There’s another layer when it comes to Mr Johnson though. And discussing his habits with many of those who have worked alongside him, his former life as a journalist is often mentioned.

Strategy to bamboozle

Even his worst enemy would acknowledge that he is a skilled wordsmith, and he regularly uses his vast range of sometimes nonsensical vocabulary to deflect, to entertain, or even ridicule. It’s certainly not unusual for politicians to try to avoid answering questions that would cast them or their parties in a less than flattering light.

One of the PM’s strategies, however, seems to be to bamboozle the listener with a blizzard of verbiage, suggesting agreement, but not committing to anything. Former colleagues suggest that by the time they have decoded what he actually meant, the conversation’s over.

An insider told me: “He frequently leaves people with the belief that he has told them one thing, but he has given himself room for manoeuvre,” believing that, “the fewer cast iron positions you hold the better, because you can always change political direction.”

The verbal flourishes and rhetorical tricks are part of the reason why he has prospered.

“A lot of his magic has been those off-the-cuff comments, that’s why a lot of the public like him,” says an ally.

He was like an “untamed political animal” when he first developed his political style says another, playing with phrases as he would in his byzantine and flamboyant newspaper columns, teasing with words, presenting a character like no other politician.

But another told me it has developed into a way of shrouding what’s really going on.

“I think he is an extremely shrewd and calculating character that hides it all under the costume of a performer,” says this source.

One Brexiteer even suggests his mannerisms encourage others to be complicit: “It’s like a comedian, you are willing him on, you want it to be plausible” – even if, according to them, it simply isn’t.

That’s where his personal style, according to others, tips into something much less appealing. A former minister, once close to him, told me: “The problem is that it’s becoming clearer that the PM treats facts like he treats all his relationships – utterly disposable once inconvenient.

“It’s all about power. Facts, policies, people – they all get ditched if they get in the way. Whatever is necessary.”

Like Steve Jobs

Yet what’s suggested time and again is that the prime minister’s attitude to the truth and facts is not based on what is real and what is not, but is driven by what he wants to achieve in that moment – what he desires, rather than what he believes. And there is no question, that approach, coupled with an intense force of personality can be enormously effective.

In his political career, Boris Johnson has time and again overturned the odds, and that’s a huge part of the reason why.

Quote card: "Is there wilful lying? I would struggle to point to a direct example" - former colleague of Boris Johnson

One former colleague compares him to the late Steve Jobs, the hard-driving founder of tech giant Apple. Jobs was said to have a “reality distortion field”, described by his biographer as a “confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand”.

In other words, ordering the truth to suit his ambitions, refusing to take no for an answer, relishing proving that the impossible could be done.

Sound familiar?

Mr Johnson’s former colleague told me: “Is there wilful lying? I would struggle to point to a direct example. Does he recreate the truth to suit him? Yes.”

This source, and several others, told me the prime minister has a “deep dislike of being accused of lying”. Several sources have even suggested that during the 2016 Brexit campaign he was nervous about the now infamous promise, plastered on the side of his battle bus, to spend the £350m a week the UK sends to the EU “to fund the NHS instead”.

Mr Johnson was nervous about the claim plastered across the Vote Leave battle bus, several sources say

Mr Johnson was conscious that every time he used this claim, it could be challenged by the fact that the £350m did not take into account the budget rebate the UK got from the EU.

Mr Johnson was all about “images, emotions, he didn’t want to be pinned down to a number”, says my source.

He was also understood to be unhappy about the campaign’s claims about Turkey’s proposed entry to the EU, and the potential impact on immigration. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need a reminder of how controversial those claims were at the time. Just in case, you can read about them here and here.

But private doubts about whether the claims were convincing did not stop Mr Johnson from becoming the biggest cheerleader for leaving the EU. The rest, of course, is history.

Some of those with him on the Brexit journey don’t think that he was ever a true believer.

A veteran Brexiteer told me: “Boris is not one of us, but we put him there – and that is a truth he is never going to want to confront.”

Big trouble ahead?

Forgetting the recent history, does any of this actually matter politically now? Voters don’t generally consider politicians to be particularly trustworthy.

Boris Johnson’s reputation and popularity is certainly not based on a view that he tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. He has what pollsters call “authenticity” – what you see is what you get. He’s not super smooth and he doesn’t pretend to be perfect.

The current allegations about his conduct, which he characteristically describes as a “farrago of nonsense” do not seem to be shifting public opinion much, if at all.

But just because the Conservatives can shout loudly that no one cares about this stuff, that doesn’t mean that the prime minister’s complicated relationship with truth can be easily dismissed. Most straightforwardly, there are several investigations now into exactly what has happened with the Downing Street flat that could trip up him and the Conservative Party.

Sources who told the BBC and other news organisations that Mr Johnson did say he would rather see “bodies pile high” than take the country into a third lockdown have said they would be prepared to testify under oath if they have to.

Depending how and when those two issues unwind, there could be big trouble for Downing Street.

Politics is an extremely tough business, as Mr Johnson has been discovering of late. Huge parliamentary majorities do not protect you from personal criticism. And many of the government’s current woes can, arguably, be traced back to the PM’s relationship with the truth.

I’ve been told on more occasions than I can count that Boris Johnson trusts hardly anyone, and suspects almost everyone. As one source describes it, he “behaves in such a way that people eventually tire of him, feel let down, and behave in the way he feared they would”. The breakdown in his relationship with his former adviser Dominic Cummings is spectacular evidence of that.

But people who work alongside Mr Johnson are often kept guessing, unsure of what he really thinks.

It leaves him all powerful. His whim rules.

But it also can make it harder to achieve what he says he wants – the priorities he was elected to deliver.

Yet popularity matters in politics too. Despite the horrors of coronavirus, hard realities have never been part of the PM’s desired script. To use one of his tactics, quoting the classics, the Greek philosopher Plato said: “No one is more hated than he who speaks the truth.”

But as one of the few people who genuinely knows Boris Johnson once told me, he is a politician who above all, wants to be loved.


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Politics

‘Liz Truss’s energy plan is not enough to help us’

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liz truss

Scottish businesses have warned Liz Truss that her plan to help firms cope with energy bills may not be enough to prevent a “tsunami” of closures.


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The prime minister will cap average annual household energy bills at £2,500 for two years, with companies receiving “equivalent support”.

But hospitality bosses facing soaring costs have criticised a lack of clarity from Westminster.


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The government insists its strategy will help boost economic growth.

Businesses, as well as charities and public buildings, will see their energy costs capped at the same price per unit that households will pay under the new plans.


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The commercial scheme is set to run for six months and is to be reviewed after three – at which point targeted support could be introduced for certain sectors deemed to be particularly vulnerable.

However, Scottish hospitality business owners have told BBC Scotland that Ms Truss’s statement was short on detail.


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Pub owner Billy Gold said the prime minister’s announcement did little to allay his fears

Billy Gold, owner of the Heilen Jessie bar in Glasgow’s east end, has seen his standing charges alone increase by 600%.

He warned that the UK government’s proposals would do little to stave off the crisis facing his family business.

“To say businesses will receive equivalent support I think is ambiguous in the extreme,” Mr Gold said.

“If that means ‘look how well I’ve done, things won’t go any higher’, I’m sorry Liz, things are too high already and my business, like many businesses, is on its uppers.”

The publican explained he would have to charge £8.40 for a pint of his cheapest lager, as well as increasing turnover, to keep his firm on an even keel.

“You don’t need to be Alan Sugar to figure out that isn’t going to happen,” he told the BBC.

Mr Gold, who described small and medium enterprises as the “lifeblood” of the economy, said he may have to start reducing his staff of 11 local workers.

“I don’t even want to say it but if I’ve got to do it I don’t have a choice,” he added.

“It would break my heart to be the guy that’s got to do that but if that’s what I’ve got to do, that’s what I will do.

“But you cannae run a business without staff. You’re then on a race to the bottom, a downward spiral.”

Singl-end boss Paul Banham is demanding clarity from the UK government

Paul Banham, operations director of the Singl-end cafe and bakehouses in Glasgow, said the prime minister’s statement had sparked confusion.

He told the BBC: “I don’t know what will happen if I’ve signed up to a contract two months ago, will the price cap still apply to that?

“There’s also talk of a sector-specific review over the next few months to try and come up with more targeted help.

“The hospitality industry would say there was some targeted help during Covid so why can’t some of that support not be applied straight away? Why does it have to be a three-month wait?”

Mr Banham added: “Many businesses won’t be able to survive while they wait.”

He said VAT cuts and business rates relief would also be required to save struggling hospitality firms.

“A price cap is a basic starting minimum to stop the impending tsunami of businesses closing,” he said.

“Every week that goes by, every month that goes by, operators are getting pushed to the brink.”

Baker Andrew Chisholm says his firm will struggle to survive the next year

Andrew Chisholm, who runs Airdrie-based Christie the Baker, is also awaiting further clarity from the government.

“It’s all guesswork,” he said. “There’s nobody giving me precise figures off the back of what we heard this morning.

“We still haven’t really seen the devil in the detail.”

His firm is facing a 600% gas bill increase under Ms Truss’s proposals, with a further 200% hike in electricity costs.

“Going forward, the way the gas price is, it will be unsustainable,” he added.

“I still think that it’s going to be very, very difficult running this business in the next 12 months.”

‘Cliff edge’

The Federation of Small Businesses Scotland has warned that one in six small firms is expecting to close, be sold or downsize in the next year.

Policy chair Andrew McRae “warmly welcomed” Ms Truss’s announcement, but added: “We do need more detail and we’ll be working with the new government to clarify what happens next.

“The six-month lifeline to get businesses through the winter is vital, but this must not result in a cliff edge with businesses being hit even harder in the spring.”

The UK government says its price cap will spark economic growth and curb inflation by as much as 5%.

Ms Truss told MPs: “Extraordinary challenges call for extraordinary measures, ensuring that the United Kingdom is never in this situation again.”


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Politics

South Sudan president announces new parliament

South Sudan leader Kiir decrees new parliament

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By AFP


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Published: May 11, 2021 07:13 PM

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir announced a new parliament on Monday including lawmakers from opposing sides of the country’s civil war as part of a 2018 peace accord, state television reported.


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A new legislative body was a condition of the 2018 accord between himself and Vice President Riek Machar, for years on opposition sides during the five-year civil war that left 380,000 people dead and four million displaced.

“Reconstituting” the country’s parliament had been due in February 2020, but had still not taken place, prompting the ire of the opposition. 


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Kiir dissolved the previous parliament on Saturday ahead of the change.

A decree by Kiir was then read out on the South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation on Monday, including the names of the national assembly legislators. In accordance with the accord, the new assembly will number 550 lawmakers, up from the previous 400.


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Of these 332 deputies were chosen by Kiir, 128 by Machar, and 90 others by signatory parties, in line with the peace deal. 

The decree did not mention the upper house state council which was also dissolved late Saturday. The dissolution of parliament came on the eve of a visit to the capital Juba by US special envoy to South Sudan Donald Booth.

Kiir and Machar formed a coalition government in February 2020.

However few provisions of the truce have been honored, and analysts have warned of the threat of a return to war. Brutal communal conflicts continue in the last six months of 2020.


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Governance

Jacob Zuma’s corruption trial over arms deal pushed back

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15:07 17 May


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Nomsa Maseko

BBC Southern Africa correspondent


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The corruption trial of South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma has been pushed to 26 May where a formal plea will be entered.

He is expected to plead not guilty.


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Mr Zuma’s supporters gathered outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court ahead of his appearance.

The former president faces 16 counts of corruption relating to a multi-billion-dollar arms deal.


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A total of 217 witnesses are expected to testify against him.

The case centres on an arms deal with French arms company Thales that was meant to modernise South Africa’s defence in the late 1990s.

Both Mr Zuma and the company have denied the charges which include fraud, racketeering and money laundering.


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